Syed Mujtaba Andrabi is the Economic and Political Officer at the U.S Consulate General, Hyderabad. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter with the Associated Press. Mujtaba has a masters’ degree in Business and Public Policy from the University of Salford, United Kingdom. He speaks Urdu, Hindi and Kashmiri. Along with his formal education, from age seven to 22, he was trained to be a “Mufti” studying Islam.
To commemorate World Press Freedom Day, the Consulate decided to speak to the people who have the strongest opinions on the subject and who are set up to have great influence over the media in the future – students of mass communication and journalism. We invited twenty students from four different colleges to come to the consulate to discuss the issue of press freedom and how social media is changing the way we produce and consume news. The title of the discussion was “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers,” and the group of young, opinionated students were eager to engage in a heated discussion on every topic from freedom of expression to civilian journalism to responsible journalism.
Since I have noticed that Indian society tends to elevate the professions of doctor and engineer above others, I was curious to know why these students decided to break the mold by choosing to study mass communications. Some said it's the media's power to influence opinion that attracted them, and others argued that their love for writing and quest for knowledge spurred them. One of the girls said that she chose to study journalism because it put her "on a path of self-discovery." They also represented the wide breadth of what constitutes journalism in today’s society. While some were focused on print journalism, others were pursuing their interests in photo or video journalism.
I was impressed by the students’ strong opinions, their ability to express them, and their eagerness to debate with each other. Though my role was to lead the discussion, I often ended up joining in the debate with them and enjoyed hearing the students passionately express their views. We debated the true meaning of objectivity. Does objectivity mean that every piece of news should strive to be balanced, or does it mean that there should be a plurality of opinions? I argued for presenting all sides – good and bad – in the interest of supporting freedom of expression.
The students also debated the role of censorship in society, but they did agree that the line between censorship and good journalism is often blurred and deliberately confused by vested groups, political or otherwise, to censor free speech. Most fascinating to me was that the students were very self-aware, and they acknowledged their own biases and confusion or internal conflicts over these abstract, complicated issues.
The students were passionate when they spoke about the high standards they hold journalists to, but their idealism was balanced by their keen grasp on reality. I was impressed by their ability to present the positives and negatives to each issue we addressed. There has been much discussion over the changing nature of journalism due to social media and new technology. The students acknowledged the powerful role social media has in reporting, but they maintained that professional journalists and traditional forms of media still hold an important place in society. They also noted several examples where the freedom of social media and lack of controls placed on it were a drawback as individuals used social media as a platform for misinformation.
Despite their sharp differences of opinion, the students were eager for an exchange of ideas and listened to each other. This openness to new ideas makes me optimistic about the future of India’s media scene. This is exactly what makes a free press – open-minded, passionate journalists who constantly question and challenge the accepted norms and are committed to promoting the free exchange of ideas.